I departed from my YA reading list last week to read a fascinating adult book that struck a chord for more than one reason. It’s called The Seventh Angel: a memoir by Alex McKeithen. It’s McKeithen’s no holds barred, very honest and frank account of his break with reality while studying painting in Tuscany during the summer of his Junior year at Davidson College.
McKeithen describes in vivid detail and authentic disconnects how he became convinced he was the seventh angel (taken from the book of Revelation 10:7) called to announce to everyone that the Apocalypse had arrived. He runs through the streets of Paris, shedding clothes at churches on the conviction that he would no longer need them. The French police arrest him at the Arc de Triomphe, totally nude, and commit him to an asylum where he is given Haldol without a definite diagnosis.
His parents arrive from Charlotte, NC and help him get released to Duke University Medical Center where he first has to experience withdrawal from the Haldol. McKeithen lands a doctor who correctly diagnoses him with bipolar disorder, puts him on lithium, and holds him at the hospital for over three months in a slow recovery process. During that time he interacts with a colorful cast of characters on the ward, and most importantly, goes through family counseling with his parents and two sisters. The classic “perfect family” is disassembled with the help of an able counselor, and by the end of their brief six-weeks of sessions, they begin to communicate and express emotions that were new to all of them.
By all accounts McKeithen’s is a success story. He returned to Paris after his recovery and graduation from Davidson and went on to get his Masters in Typography and Design in Arnhem, The Netherlands. Today he lives in New York City where he has designed for such clients as Rolling Stone and Forbes.
I told you this book struck some chords. Obviously being from Charlotte is a point of interest, but more intriguing are the similarities between McKeithen’s manic episode and my mother’s, who also suffered from bipolar. She was an artist, and during her first manic episode she was found wandering naked on the streets of Portland, Oregon on a religious quest. I’ve not read any official studies that equate art and/or religious experiences with manic episodes, but there seems to be more than one instance, the most famous of which is Vincent Van Gogh.
Finally, I was glad to see that McKeithen touched on the value of family counseling, and how each of the family members was challenged to work on his or her own issues as they related to Alex. Even though bipolar is a known chemical imbalance in the brain, the ramifications ripple through a family and affect the emotional equilibrium of the entire family and each member individually. In my mother’s day (1960’s), talk therapy was not available as it was for the McKeithens (late 1980’s), and I believe to this day that our entire family might have been healthier had that structure been in place for us.
I recommend this book to anyone who has had a loved one with bipolar disorder, or who is facing it in his or her own life. By all indications on the book jacket it seems a safe assumption that McKeithen has stayed on medication and as a result, is reaping a rich and rewarding life. I hope that is the case, because that is the strongest message anyone with this disorder to convey.
Hey READERS, I would love to hear from you.
Is your MIND FULL of old thoughts or new?